Beitzah 14

Laughter.

There were two major centers of the late antique rabbinic world: Roman Palestine and Sasanian Babylonia. The rabbis in these two communities were subject to different empires and had different cultural contexts that shaped their lives. While they all saw themselves as part of the same rabbinic Jewish community, their differences were also important and could lead to conflict — as exemplified on today’s daf.

The context is a discussion about how to separate wheat from chaff on Shabbat, when both farming and separating bad from good is prohibited.

Rav Adda bar Ahava said that Rav said: One blows from the joints of his fingers and above.

Oftentimes, the rabbis permit certain behaviors that would ordinarily be forbidden on Shabbat if they are performed in a substantially different way. Usually, if you were going to hold a bunch of wheat and blow on it to separate the kernels from the chaff, you’d grasp the wheat in your fist. Rav thinks that holding it instead between the tips of your fingers — a grip that is far less strong — constitutes the kind of altered winnowing behavior that it is permitted on Shabbat. 

But not so fast! The Gemara continues:

They laughed at this explanation in the West (the land of Israel): Since he alters, even with his entire hand should be permitted as well. Rather, the halakhah is as Rav Elazar said: One may blow while holding the grain with one hand, and with all his strength.

The truth is, that if you’re going to winnow some grain on a weekday, doing it by hand — using any part of the hand — is probably too inefficient. Instead, you’re likely to use various kinds of baskets and tools — or at the very least, both your hands! Doing it using only one hand, says Rav Elazar, is itself enough of a change to make it permissible on Shabbat. You don’t have to also hold it in some awkward, inefficient grasp. 

On the face of it, what we have here is a standard halakhic dispute. One rabbi thinks that the grain is held between the fingers but not in the fist, while the other thinks that it is held in the fist of one hand, not two. One thinks that the change from weekday to Shabbat winnowing must make the activity awkward to the point of bizarre; the other thinks it can simply be made slower and less efficient.

In most halakhic disputes recorded in the Talmud, we don’t get a strong emotional reaction. Here, however, the rabbis of Roman Palestine don’t just disagree with Rav — they laugh out loud when they hear his position. The image of blowing hard on wheat held insecurely between the fingertips elicits the same response we might expect from slapstick humor.

When we think about the rabbis of the Talmud, we likely think about brilliant minds and towering moral characters. Today’s daf reminds us that those thinkers also had bodies that were more and then sometimes less under their control. Laughter is an involuntary reflex — our brains trigger laughter as a response to a wide range of stimuli. The once popular use of laugh tracks in sitcoms — where recorded studio laughter is played in response to jokes — highlights the fact that it is also profoundly social. So yes, perhaps the rabbis of the West heard Rav’s position, imagined the potential for physical comedy and collectively got the giggles. After all, like us, they were profoundly human — with all the biological complexities that come with it.

Read all of Beitzah 14 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 14th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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